With the movie Fifty Shades of Grey coming out, everyone is talking about it. I have reached my ad nauseam point. So, why am I mentioning it? Well, over on Internetmonk.com, a wonderful article on consent was written by Damaris Zehner. She makes the following, quite trenchant, points about consent. Consent appears to be one of the main points in this movie and one of the main points of argument between those who are in favor of the movie and those who think the movie encourages spousal or partner abuse. Her points are:
Consent assumes a lot of things.
- It assumes rationality, which is why the consent of adults is legally more binding than the consent of children.
- It assumes sufficient knowledge of language to understand what is being consented to. The plot of Mary Stewart’s novel My Brother Michael turns on the main character’s mistaking the Greek word “Ne” for no, when it actually means yes. She seemed to consent when she was really refusing.
- It assumes perfect or at least adequate knowledge of what the choice entails and what the consequences are likely to be. Perhaps my friend invites me to a party and I consent, on the understanding that it will be a quiet gathering of people playing bridge. If instead I find halfway through the party that it has turned into a sadomasochistic drug orgy, did I consent to that?
It assumes that I am not otherwise constrained, legally or morally, from making that choice. A few years ago there was an incident of a cannibal obtaining consent to kill and eat a willing victim, but the legal and social consensus was that the unethical nature of cannibalism cancelled out the consent of the participants.
She correctly points out that an approach to consent that only requires two adults to agree to something is insufficient. The secular world recognizes this in part when laws are passed that define unequal relationships for which consent is not a legal or ethical possibility. For instance, many states now forbid a professor to have relationships with a student, even if the student is not taking any classes from the professor and even if the student is otherwise an adult. The unequal power and influence relationship between the both of them precludes true consent. It is even worse between a secondary teacher and any student. One of the major concerns for those who are upset with the movie is the grossly unequal power relationships that appear to be present between an incredibly rich man and the college student, for example.
But, of course, that is not the only concern. Read some of Ms. Zehner’s points above. To some extent, you have to understand what you are getting into. This understanding must not simply be of language but of concept. But, I like her final point. “It assumes that I am not otherwise constrained, legally or morally from making that choice.” For those of us who are religious, this is a major point. I say religious because many Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc., object to the premise of this movie. Just because you say, “yes,” does not mean you have the legal, moral, or ethical permission to do so.
Ms. Zehner makes other fine points that are well worth reading. Rather than taking this post to its end, I would rather encourage you to go to her post and read her full and well written argument.